By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor
This article was supposed to be about Italian American Easter traditions; however, the world has changed dramatically since I began writing the story a little over a month ago. Many of us face spending Easter separated from our loved ones—or even alone—as economic uncertainty grips the nation and the world, and as an invisible pathogen continues to attack our communities. To proceed with the article as originally conceived would have been, well, tone deaf. So I scrapped it.
Emotional Life Rafts
The COVID-19 pandemic has an insidious mate: the epidemic of anxiety and fear. Apprehension surrounding the disease itself, coupled with social isolation and financial woes, constitutes a second formidable enemy that needs to be fought in conjunction with the virus. As Americans seek voices of reason and reassurance during this crisis, two Italian Americans, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have distinguished themselves as sources of reliable, easily understood information. I’m particularly struck by the degree to which Cuomo’s italianità shapes his statesmanship and bolsters his emotional relatability, from naming a protective order for people over the age of 70 after his mother (Matilda’s Law) to providing comfort and calm through his warmth-infused anecdotes. Gov. Cuomo’s description of the Sunday dinners of his childhood conjured an image of his family seated around one big table while also evoking memories of my youth, when we made lasagna from scratch at my father’s house.
Seeking Solace and Finding Strength in the Past
There is an adage, “nostalgia eases the pain of the present.” If the volume of Facebook memories being shared these days is any indication, we are seeking solace in the sweeter times of the past. As a historian, I spend many of my waking hours immersed in bygone eras, and during dark hours like these, I find myself inventorying my family history, not for recollections of the “good old days,” but to find strength and empowerment in the challenges my grandparents and relatives endured. Like your families and so many other immigrants, my ancestors left their homeland for a place they had never seen, endured nativism and xenophobia, and accepted dangerous, low-paying jobs in order to get ahead. My grandmother was 18 during the peak of the influenza pandemic, and two years later, a devastating flood destroyed the family’s home and business, carrying away their life savings in its many tons of debris. They persevered, rebuilt, and started over. Then came the economic cataclysm of the Depression, and on its heels, World War II. The family photos that survive from that era do not always capture the fear, uncertainty, and pain that they were undoubtedly experiencing.
What life will look like on the other side of this pandemic is unclear, but one thing is for certain: even in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, this experience will undoubtedly sear its imprint on our consciences and leave us forever changed. It is my hope that, just as suffering and strife shaped our ancestors, we will emerge more determined, resolute, interdependent, unified, and appreciative of the heroes who saw us through this crisis—including healthcare professionals and first responders—as well as more cognizant of many of the luxuries we previously took for granted, such as grocery stores with abundantly stocked shelves. We will remember these days, not simply for the deceptively serene silence that fills the streets, nor the mask-wearing populace, nor the grim news that fills the airwaves. We will recall how we carried on, came together as a community, acted in the common good, acknowledged strangers from behind a face covering, and tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for the most impressionable, including our children and grandchildren, and all those who look to us for guidance and strength.
Connecting in Isolation
This Easter, although it will be marked in a startlingly different way, presents an opportunity to explore the significance of the holiday—the themes of rebirth and renewal—while embracing the changes to come. We are invited to affirm our faith, demonstrate courage, care for others, transmit history, discover new ways to connect to old traditions, and start new ones. After all, traditions, like people, adapt and evolve over time. In addition to breaking bread together virtually and attending online services, consider sharing the food you prepare with those separated from their loved ones (while practicing appropriate social distancing, of course). Maybe your financial position allows you to underwrite a meal for frontline workers using the services of a local business that is struggling. This can also be the time to pass down an heirloom recipe or decorate eggs together via Zoom. Easter celebrates victory over death; let us also commemorate victory over fear.